Elizabeth Harman, assistant administrator of the FEMA Grant Programs Directorate, had a message this summer for states about unspent homeland security grants: Spend the money.
To which at least a couple of states have replied: We are.
The money in question is more than $8 billion of homeland security grants dating to fiscal 2007 still in the pipelines around the country. At the National Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and Homeland Security Conference in Columbus, Ohio, in May, Harman said there are good reasons that funding from previous grant cycles remains unspent but urged grantees to spend it.
Harman acknowledged that there are technical and procedural reasons for the slow drawdown of some grants and that certain grants take longer to spend. It was perceived that her message to spend the money correlates directly with Congress’ reluctance to continue to make available homeland security funds if money is still in the pipeline.
The perception that the grant funding isn’t being spent may lie in large part to a lack of understanding on the part of Congress as to how the money is spent.
Brendan Murphy, director of grants monitoring for the California Emergency Management Agency, said the nature of the funding in recent years is such that spending the money rapidly would defeat the purpose of some of the grants. “We were asked to look in a strategic manner and figure out how best to address some of the gaps in our response areas,” Murphy said. “In doing that, you don’t get expenditures of grant funds overnight. If you did, you wouldn’t be using a strategic approach; you’d be shooting from the hip.”
Plus, he said, there are administrative challenges in disbursing large sums of money, where time is a factor and where entities like the California Emergency Management Agency and major cities are responsible for sub-granting money to other agencies in the state.
The homeland security grants Murphy is talking about are three- (states) to five-year (UASI) grants that required significant planning and strategic investments. “We’re using strategy and addressing the actual gaps we have in California, and in doing that, you don’t spend the money in 12 months, you use the whole grant period.”
Rocky Vaz, Dallas’ intergovernmental services manager, said the notion that homeland security grants aren’t being spent isn’t true. “The misconception about the homeland security funds not being spent is false, and it’s tough to make everybody understand it.”
He said that to solve the problem, DHS grants should be administered like U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) grants where the money is drawn down up front. “You’re talking about large [DHS] projects that go all the way to the end of the performance period before they get drawn down,” he said. “If you have large deployments of software or large radio projects, or planning projects, you’re not drawing down all the money up front like a lot of DOJ grants.”
Vaz said the DOJ grants don’t receive the scrutiny from Congress because they get spent well within the performance period. “That’s a good model.” And he said the DHS funds aren’t drawn down directly. They get “bottlenecked” as they pass through the state administrative agency.
“Texas has probably 200 subgrantees, and we all spend our money over 24, 36 months that we have and we submit our reimbursement requests. Now the state has 200 grantees and they’re not going to submit reimbursement requests [to the feds] every time a grantee submits them; they’re going to hold them for a period.”
Vaz said most of the grant money is spent at the end of the performance period to maximize strategy. “If I have $8 million, I’ll spend a million on small projects for six, eight, 12 months, but the bulk of the $7 million will be spent at the end of the performance period so that I have everything in place and then I submit the reimbursement request.”
Both Murphy and Vaz said implementing plans for multiple jurisdictions takes time, especially when you have 1,100 cities in a UASI as Vaz does. “Every state and UASI has a strategy, and we implement our strategy based on the amount of monies we get,” Vaz said. “If it’s something that just Dallas needs, it doesn’t take long to get that done. Getting all the players together [and] mutual aid together is what takes the longest time.”
Vaz added that when homeland security grants were first deployed they were spent on equipment. But now with the money having to be spent strategically — technology upgrades, fusion centers, planning and exercising — it takes longer to spend the funds.